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Do distance and location matter in e-learning?

By Lisa Neal / October 2007

TYPE: OPINION
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There are many differences between teaching online and in the classroom-including, as I wrote in a previous column, whether an instructor can see who is making eye contact, nodding in agreement, or sighing with frustration. Vital information like this has never been replicated in the virtual classroom. Physical distance between students and teachers clearly has an impact, but does it matter how far apart participants are in an online class?

In a recent article in Communications of the ACM ("Why Nearshore Means That Distance Matters"), authors Erran Carmel and Pamela Abbott write that "the ubiquitous nature of technology has led to an assumption that common interactions such as communication, coordination, and collaboration can be easily resolved over distance by technology and that physical location therefore becomes a non-issue." To see if this applies to e-learning, we must examine separately courses with and without peer and instructor interaction.

In the case of self-paced courses, location matters primarily as regards culture and language. Some companies localize courses so that language—including dialects—and references reflect specific regions. Apart from concerns of this type, the locations of the instructional designers and others involved in creating and distributing the course don't impact the students.

In the case of instructor-led online courses, location still matters for language and cultural issues, and also impacts instructor-student interaction and student collaboration. The only "show-stopper," when synchronous technologies are used in the virtual classroom, is time-zone incompatibility. Archived sessions "solve" the problem, but remove the interactive element. Videoconferencing, especially with Cisco's TelePresence product, has potential to increase the realism of a virtual classroom, but only if students are comfortable being on camera.

I certainly prefer to work with people at a distance after having met in person. I have taught many students online without ever meeting them and felt like I knew them quite well. However, I needed techniques to make them seem real to me, not just disembodied voices or creators of text. I liked to talk to them on the phone instead of just by email, and, when I did, I pulled up their profiles which included their picture—not the same as being in a room with them, but helpful for me. I'm sure other online instructors develop their own techniques for bridging distances with students.

Most online courses include some student collaboration, mediated through technology. Carnegie Mellon professor Sara Kiesler's research looked at the role of proximity for groups in these situations and found that "technology alone is often insufficient to recreate the same facilitating environment in distributed teams that is present in co-located settings." I agree, but have found students quickly become accustomed to working together using, for instance, discussion forums or IM for communication.

Language and culture, however, can be difficult because they can limit a student's ability to fully participate in a class. In my view, that is how location matters most. I taught a class (in person) a few years ago in Poland and was amazed by the differences between Polish and American students. Polish students tended not to make eye contact with me, and far preferred to ask me questions during breaks than during class. Both of these were a noticeable contrast to the American students I was accustomed to. I was told by someone who had taught in both countries that these are typical differences. In this case, I adjusted to them, but if these Polish students were in a class with students from other countries, their style of participation might put them at a disadvantage.

Do distance and location matter? Technology certainly transcends borders although time zones restrict some forms of interaction. But ultimately, students from different locations benefit from the varied perspectives possible in an online course that transcends borders.



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ADDITIONAL READING

    Lisa Neal
  1. Online learning and fun
  2. In search of simplicity
  3. eLearning and fun
  4. Everything in moderation
  5. The basics of e-learning
  6. Is it live or is it Memorex?
  7. The Value of Voice
  8. Predictions for 2006
  9. Five Questions...for Christopher Dede
  10. Five Questions... for John Seely Brown
  11. Five questions...for Shigeru Miyagawi
  12. "Deep" thoughts
  13. 5 questions... for Richard E. Mayer
  14. Designing usable, self-paced e-learning courses
  15. Want better courses?
  16. Just "DO IT"
  17. Five questions...
  18. Formative evaluation
  19. Senior service
  20. Blogging to learn and learning to blog
  21. My life as a Wikipedian
  22. Five questions...for Elliott Masie
  23. The stripper and the bogus online degree
  24. Five questions...for Lynn Johnston
  25. Five questions...for Tom Carey
  26. Not all the world's a stage
  27. Five questions...for Karl M. Kapp
  28. Five questions...for Larry Prusack
  29. Five questions...for Seb Schmoller
  30. Why do our K-12 schools remain technology-free?
  31. Music lessons
  32. Learn to apologize for fun and profit
  33. Of web hits and Britney Spears
  34. Advertising or education?
  35. Five questions…for Matt DuPlessie
  36. Back to the future
  37. Serious games for serious topics
  38. Five (or six) questions...for Irene McAra-McWilliam
  39. Learner on the Orient Express
  40. Predictions For 2003
  41. "Spot Learning"
  42. Q&A with Saul Carliner
  43. When will e-learning reach a tipping point?
  44. Talk to me
  45. Q&A with Diana Laurillard
  46. Do it yourself
  47. Degrees by mail
  48. Predictions for 2004
  49. How to get students to show up and learn
  50. Q&A
  51. Blended conferences
  52. Predictions for 2002
  53. Learning from e-learning
  54. Storytelling at a distance
  55. Q&A with Don Norman